Education Opinion

If I Had Been in Atlanta

By Peter Greene — April 06, 2015 6 min read
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Much has been written about the conviction of the Atlanta teachers from the standpoint of society-- how should we react, should they have been convicted, how should they be punished, what this tells us about the system, etc. Here’s a great article comparing their fates to the fates of our economy-crushing housing crisis creators. Here’s what one of my favorite political writers, Jason Linkins, had to say. And here, tied more closely to testing policy, is what blogger Stephen Singer had to say. And if you’d like the background of how this happened, last year’s New Yorker article is thorough.

But as I’ve watched this unfold and read through many reactions to the prosecution and conviction, I find myself coming back to the more personal question--

What would I have done if I had been in Atlanta?

Most teachers have a visceral reaction to cheating-- bad, wrong, don’t, don’t ever, ever, ever, ever do it. I’m no different. Cheating is wrong. Dishonesty is wrong. And, frankly, I’ve made enough mistakes in my own life to know that sick-at-gut feeling of living dishonestly, to know it personally and to live with a pretty strong commitment to never feeling it again.

But I’m not in Atlanta.

I teach in a small town high school in a rural area that is mostly free of the high-pressure troubles of poor urban schools. We’re pretty unwealthy ourselves, but here in the hinterlands, there aren’t a lot of charters and privateers trying to crack open the market. We’re also the only high school in the district, so we don’t have people breathing down our necks with score sheets in one hand and demolition plans in the other.

I also teach for bosses who are not score-obsessed or threatening to end my career if I don’t make my numbers. The state may slowly be losing its mind with teacher evaluations, but my bosses still judge me on how well I teach.

So I’m not in Atlanta. I’m not working under the constant threat of punishment for crazy factors beyond my control. So if I stand up and nobly proclaim that I am 100% certain I would never do what those teachers in Atlanta were convicted of doing (and what so many other teachers across the country have not been convicted of doing), I would be talking out of some orifice other than my mouth.

I know some of the factors I would consider.

I think one of the worst results of the cheating in Atlanta (and in DC and Philly and Houston) is that cheating on tests has bolstered the illusion that reform is working.

Teachers are often terrible institutional enablers. Somebody up the line makes a bad policy choice, and rather than let our students suffer for that choice, we “fix” it on the classroom level. This solves the problem for the current students, but it also gives the administration the impression that the policy works just great.

Sometimes it’s necessary to step back and allow a single small mess in the present to avoid huge systemic ongoing disasters in the future. It is one of the things I wonder-- how much longer did No Child Left Behind keep chewing up education because all of us in the classroom were doing our best to make it look as if NCLB were actually working?

But thinking about that would also remind me that we lie and cheat on the small scale all the time. We put our name on all manner of paperwork, from fictitious lesson plans to dust-collecting standards alignment documents, with no intention of pledging ourselves to pay attention. In teaching, nodding your head and signing your name to baloney is part of the normal price of admission. Raise your hand if you’ve never fudged a student’s grade for your own class. Yeah, that’s what I thought.

We accept it because we think of it as paperwork that doesn’t matter, that has no bearing on the real work we do. I don’t consider the Pennsylvania’s Big Standardized Test anything more than a time-wasting big pile of useless baloney; linking it to threats against my professional future won’t make me respect it any more, but my lack of respect for it would probably make it easier to cross that line.

Bob Schaeffer of Fairtest says, given the overuse and abuse of standardized testing, “It is hardly surprising that more school professionals cross the ethical line.”

But here’s the thing-- all teachers were pushed across an ethical line years ago. No Child Left Behind codified a whole raft of educational malpractice. It required, among other things, that teachers treat the big Standardized Test as the gold standard of what education is about. It required that we tell our students, “Nothing is more important to your future than getting a good score on the BS Test.” And as most of us recognize, that is a lie. It is especially a lie for poor students who lack both the skills to excel at test taking and who also lack much of what they need beyond test-taking ability. It’s like taking poor kids to the store, handing them ten dollars, and saying, “Now, the only thing you need to plan a great menu for the week is this fifteen-dollar case of Twinkies.”

The Atlanta teachers were over the ethical line from the moment NCLB was made law. They could either follow the letter of the law, stop doing the things that were turning their school around and focus on a bogus test for a system that would inevitably chew them up, or they could try to trick the system into sparing them in hopes that some students could eventually be saved. Both choices are unethical, but one choice was far more likely to serve the interests of the students-- at least in the short term.

NCLB and much education reform nonsense makes me angry precisely because it gives me a lose-lose choice. I can break the rules and commit educational malpractice, or I can do what I know professionally is correct and break some rules while doing it. Or I can, as most teachers do, try to create some sort of clever parquet out of the two and tap dance my way through the teaching day.

Teaching has, in one short generation, turned from a profession with extraordinary ethical clarity into one of shadows and greyness and compromises that we make with the system, our students, and ourselves.

If I had been in Atlanta, what would I have done?

The honest answer is that I don’t know. I might have refused to cheat at all and instead tried to wave my hands and draw attention to the crash and burn that followed, but the modern ed reform approach has been crashing and burning, with virtually no successes to speak of, for over a decade-- and nobody in power seems to care.

So I might have decided to try to save my kids and my school, and I might have stepped into it by increments, until I was confronted by the horror of people trying to laud my “success” publicly.

I might have looked for other work, if I could, but I am a nester and when I put down roots in a community, I’m unlikely to pick up. I might have left the profession, but it would have been bitter to abandon my students to someone else willing to live on the wrong side of the ethically line. I might have become obnoxious and angry, that guy who makes everyone’s eyes roll in staff meetings, and blogged angrily as well, until I managed to get myself reprimanded and fired for insubordination. Except in all those cases, a decade ago I would have had to face the prosepct of being a divorced dad with kids to look out for.

One of my fundamental beliefs about life is that, no matter how dark the place you find yourself, no matter how many wrong choices you have made, there is always a right choice open to you. So it is a hard thing for me to imagine that there were no good choices available for the Atlanta teachers (or all the other cheating teachers who haven’t been arrested or ruined). But I wasn’t there, and I have no way of knowing exactly what choices they faced.

And yet there is something baldfaced and ugly about taking out an eraser and changing the answers on a test. It seems like a bigger jump. But is it?

Making ethical choices in unethical circumstances is damned hard. It would be great if the Powers That Be recognized the conviction of the Atlanta teachers as what it is-- a sign that the system is horribly out of whack. I’m not holding my breath.

Instead, I’m just remembering to hoping that my big Atlanta moment never comes, but if it does, that I recognize it and that I find a choice that I can live with.

The opinions expressed in View From the Cheap Seats are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.